Horses for courses

Dave Lull sends me a link to a post critical of the classic book Elements of Style, by Strunk and White: Omit Needless Books of Advice on Writing at God of the Machine.

It is an interesting post. I don’t have much, if any, problem with S&W. Scientists do well to follow the advice when writing up original research, because descriptions of technical concepts, methods and so on are vastly improved by brevity. In particular, the common habit among US authors of applying six or seven adjectives to a noun can be very hard to comprehend when many of the adjectives could equally well be nouns, and the whole consists of polysyllabic specialist terminology (oh, OK, then — jargon). Whether or not one agrees with the judgement "a strange mix of the anodyne, the obvious, and the risible", S&W’s advice is, I believe, of great practical use for people trying to convey complex information in the clearest way.

Poetic or creative prose is probably different; I am sure one would not want to be too slavish in following style rules under these circumstances. As a reader, I admire economy of writing style. For me, many modern "bestseller"-type books are far too long and overblown for their content. Others will have different tastes.

Some of the God in the Machine’s comments don’t travel. His joke about thanking one’s parents, God and Ann Rynd is not funny in the UK, it is correct grammar (no comma before the ‘and’). Decisions about house style on this sort of topic (comma or not before "and"?) are among the things that make working on an international journal such fun. Almost as good as how to style an author’s country when he or she is from Palestine or Taiwan without mortally offending someone — but that’s another ballpark.

Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. has also posted on this matter.

24 thoughts on “Horses for courses

  1. I don’t know that the parents, God and Ayn Rand comment is meant to be funny (I remember the example but not the intent), but certainly it is meant to point out the ambiguity that can arise when one omits the Oxford comma. It’s a good example for the purpose.

  2. Same example as “eats, shoots, and leaves,” no? I am fund of Strunk & White, though I like Wm. Zinsser’s “On Writing” better. I agree with Clare about economy too. I often realize how much I could have effectively cut from my own prose after it’s too late (as in, piece is published or posted). Almost always, less is more.
    Jargon is the scourge of academe, too, Maxine, so I bet you see a lot of it in mss. submitted to “Nature.” It’s even worse in literary theory, where writers are *really* trying to sound scientific in order to justify the existence of a) their essay and b)the humanities. ‘Tis simply ridiculous. Most lit. theory published in the ’80s & ’90s would be more useful stoking bonfires than taking up space in libraries.

  3. Never mind all of your intelligent discussion….I can’t stop thinking about WHO God and Ayn Rand as a couple would have produced. Jon Stewart perhaps? Caustic, abrasive and yet quite godly. A little too short to be God’s child though. Bill Maher would be another fine son, but a little ‘soft’ for Ayn Rand I think.

  4. >>Same example as “eats, shoots, and leaves,” no?
    Actually, no. In that case the panda–who walks into a bar, eats, and then fires a gun and leaves–is objecting to a description of the panda as an animal that “eats, shoots and leaves.” Of course the description should read “eats shoots and leaves.” So a comma has been incorrectly inserted between verb and object.
    The Ayn Rand example points out the ambiguity possible when you omit a comma before the final item in a series: “my parents, God and Ayn Rand” would be clearer if it read “my parents, God, and Ayn Rand.”

  5. Hee, hee — Debra Hamel, you are funny. Yes, those pandas with AK-47s are scary bears. I just meant, a misplaced comma can cause a lot of grief to readers. You guys are getting very specific, however, about just which comma it is. I’d never heard these refs to the Oxford or Harvard comma. (What is the Podunk U. comma? “It ain’t, your, trailer, Mindy Lou.”)

  6. Before you Yanks came along, nobody would have been in any doubt about parents, God and Ann Rynd. But now you are here, and as we have to assume that a reader could be anyone, it would indeed be correct to say parents, God, and Ann Rynd — because the first rule is “don’t be ambiguous”.
    The panda is of course also an example of lack of ambiguity — it is unambiguously wrong.
    Strangely, unambiguous wrongness is easier to deal with as an editor (because you can simply correct an obvious error) than ambiguous “could possibly be right”, eg the several confusing adjectives that may be qualifying a noun, or are they in fact nouns?

  7. >>Before you Yanks came along, nobody would have been in any doubt about parents, God and Ayn Rand.
    But surely it’s still ambiguous for you?
    I can see it now, Maxine on the stage at the next Pundy Awards:
    “I’d like to thank my blogging friends, Eric and Dave Lull….”
    Whispers in the audience:
    “What’s that? Dave Lull’s got a blog now?”
    “I thought ‘Eric’ was ‘Eric the Blogless’?”
    “You suppose that’s an appositive, that ‘Eric and Dave Lull’? What’s she talking about?”
    “You don’t suppose she means ‘blogging friends *and* Eric and Dave Lull,’ do you?”
    “I don’t know. Damned Brit should have used an Oxford comma. I’ve had enough.”

  8. Actually, the article Dave Lull points to makes an interesting point about the possible introduction of ambiguity by use of the Oxford comma. Hadn’t thought of that before.

  9. I echo Debra’s rather detailed and original criticism here, Maxine. My last name is not “Lull”, but “The Blogless”. You don’t want to mix me up with that *other* guy from Wisconsin.
    (Sotto voce) Damned Brit.

  10. If I may also weigh in on the original expostulation of grammatical clarity, I would like to paraphrase E.B White: only be clear!
    Personally, I use commas wherever I might pause in ordinary conversation. This precept is enshrined in none other than the noble masterpiece of grammatical usage, The Comma Sutra. Which, I might add, was written, used, and beloved long before the lifetime of the parvenu who founded Oxford.

  11. OK, “Uncle”.
    Though of course “Eric and Dave Lull” is an example of bad writing– the editor should say “Eric [Au:who?] and Dave Lull” on proof, so the author can reply on proof “[the Blogless]” and the sub can rephrase for publication: “my parents, Eric the Blogless and Dave Lull.”
    But “my parents, Eric, and Dave Lull” is shorter if less interesting as a sentence, so I am quite happy to cry “uncle”, this not being an aggro-confrontative blog.
    Eric, thank you for your comment — I hope we see you here on future occasions.
    Incdientally, Susan Balee, you sure hit the nail on the head about literary theory; I’ve tried to read some of it. It reminds me very strongly of sociology theory, eg those “science as a social construct” guys, who make my head spin.
    And to all of you, if anyone returns to this thread, I am intrigued by Susan Barr’s challenge— Hillary Clinton and Lord Asriel — anyone better that? And what kind of offspring would they have? Arianna Huffington?
    (Disclaimer: from afar, I haev always admired Hillary Clinton since she first hoved into view, but I appreciate she may seem better at a distance — a bit like Michail Gorbachev, much admired outside the Soviet Union/Russia but not so popular within.)

  12. Well, we may not have made it to E.B. White’s “Only be clear,” but I am delighted to see this group has got E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” down pat!
    Rock on, ye merry blogsters. Actually, Maxine, what am I? I don’t have a blog, I don’t “cross-pollinate” like that Bee-licious Dave Lull, but I do like to read three or four particular blogs and post my thoughts. Am I a Blog Toe Dipper?

  13. Oh yes, Susan, you are a “delightful cross pollinator”, I have definitely extracted a post or two out of you! And I am sure you’ve provided Frank with more than one. And “Blogless Susan” is a bit stark. You need your own moniker. What should it be?
    I would like to call you a butterfly because you flit around leaving lovely imagery in comments sections, but I suspect you might regard that as too flippant. Maybe “Glitterata”?

  14. Damn, Susan Balee got me there. Forster. Nuts. But I did use a good many commas correctly, even if I missed the second period after “B” in Forster’s initials.
    Incidentially, I believe one who only reads a few favorite blogs is primarily a “blogeur”, as it were. Depraved, but who isn’t?
    Maxine: Mikhail. At least, without a cyrillic keyboard.

  15. The problem with, “my parents, Eric the Blogless and Dave Lull,” is that it reads like Eric the Blogless and Dave Lull are my parents. And if you say, “No, it doesn’t read that way,” I would say “But what if they are my parents and it should be read that way?”
    “I would like to thank my parents, Ed and Helen.” Am I thanking two people or four? And how do I note the difference without rewriting the sentence?

  16. Ars Longa, But Instructions to Authors say “Brevis”

    Aaron Haspel over at God of the Machine took some good cuts at the English-Comp warhorse “The Elements of Style” the other day. He’s good at invective, and the book deserves some, although arguably not as much as he had…

  17. God and Ayn Rand? She would never marry below her station.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

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